COVINGTON, Ga. — It’s a tale of both crime and love, faith and persistence. But it certainly isn’t your typical so-called Christian movie.
Tucked away in a studio less than an hour southeast of Atlanta, the production of “The Case For Christ” was just wrapping up filming when the couple portrayed in the film, Lee and Leslie Strobel, joined a handful of reporters in a modestly-sized theater and watched as clips of their lives flickered on the big screen.
It was an emotional experience for the couple as they relived parts of their past — a difficult past filled with arguments. In one scene, the two passionately fight as their young daughter, Allison, listens nearby — certainly a flashback Leslie Strobel isn’t proud of.
“I remember those times when we’d be arguing and she’s there, and it just brings back all that, how bad you feel putting a child through that,” Leslie Strobel told TheBlaze in an interview. “It’s wonderful that we’ve come out the other side, and it’s only a memory now.”
The making of the Strobels
It may only be a memory, but it’s a memory, along with hundreds of others, that has been written down and sold more than 10 million times as the popular apologetics book that bears the same namesake as the movie set to debut in the spring.
A journalist for the Chicago Tribune, Lee Strobel investigated many cases — including police shooting coverups and crime.
And when his wife came home with the news that she had found religion, he added Christianity to the list of things he intended to investigate.
Leslie and me with Case for Christ movie director Jon Gunn and actors Erika Christensen and Mike Vogel. pic.twitter.com/0Z6HSXLxiz
— Lee Strobel (@LeeStrobel) October 27, 2016
An atheist, Lee Strobel’s next investigative endeavor was personal. He wanted to save his wife from what he was sure would inevitably and irrevocably change her. As he wrote in his bestseller:
Leslie stunned me in the autumn of 1979 by announcing that she had become a Christian. I rolled my eyes and braced for the worst, feeling like the victim of a bait-and-switch scam. I had married one Leslie — the fun Leslie —, the carefree Leslie, the risk-taking Leslie — and now I feared she was going to turn into some sort of sexually repressed prude who would take our upwardly mobile lifestyle for all-night prayer vigils and volunteer work in grimy soup kitchens.
Leslie Strobel did, indeed, change. But instead of turning into a “prude,” Lee Strobel contended that he was “pleasantly surprised” to find that she made positive changes in her character, integrity and confidence. And her changes only propelled his search for answers about Christianity more.
The making of the movie
Adapting any story into a film presents challenges, but “The Case For Christ” certainly brought a slew of its own — including its Christian themes.
Faith-based films can be a polarizing genre, especially for those who star in the movies.
“The Case For Christ” director Jonathan Gunn told TheBlaze it is very difficult to find cast members, especially known actors, to star in faith-based films.
For actors who are just looking for work who aren’t names or aren’t known, a lot of them will take work no matter what it is. Once you’re known, then you get to pick and choose more. But there aren’t a lot of upsides to doing a faith film if you aren’t a Christian because either you’re not interested in pushing an agenda forward that isn’t your own, or you’re concerned that you’re going to be labeled as someone doing films that notoriously are labeled as having lower standards of quality.
Mike Vogel, who portrays Lee Strobel in the film and is known for his roles in “Cloverfield,” “The Help” and “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” told TheBlaze that he was “very trepidatious” about joining the “The Case For Christ” initially because he didn’t want to be involved in a “hit piece.”
“We wanted to make this a fair portrayal of what one man went through in coming to his ultimate decision of faith,” Vogel said. “But it takes faith, and this is something that Christian and non-Christian friend and I have common ground on, is that fighting over this stuff is pointless.”
“It takes faith for me to believe what I believe, and it takes faith for you to believe what you believe,” he continued. “We’re all operating on a basis of faith, and that’s what I love about Lee’s story.”
And the audience of faith-based films can be a potential issue — both Christians and non-Christians.
As the Hollywood Reporter noted earlier this year, faith-based films rely on an audience from a specific geographical location, specifically the Bible Belt, the South, the Midwest and rural California.
And Christian critics can present an issue too, the entertainment news organization reported. If a film takes too many creative liberties with a film, for example, it could draw the ire and protestations of Christians.
To address the potential pitfalls associated with faith-based films, Gunn stressed the need to make quality film, no matter what budget a movie has to work with.
“I think that that’s — the need for this genre to elevate the quality, elevate the standards so there isn’t a stigma attached to it,” Gunn said. “And even so, there are some who aren’t going to want to do it because if you’re not a Christian, you might not want to feel like you’re in a movie that’s got an agenda.”
“You can have a movie that explores issues of political issues or life philosophies that are not religion-based that can be beautifully told or can feel like it’s hitting you over the head,” he continued. “The same is true about faith films — there can be some that feel as if they’re forcing a message before the story, but there’s always a way to do them beautifully.”
So how does “The Case For Christ” avoid the downsides of a faith-based film? By staying true to its message, producing quality entertainment and not preaching to the choir — or theater, in this case.
“One of the things I liked about this film is that a film that fits in the faith category doesn’t need to push an agenda,” Gunn said.
I loved that it was a true story. I loved that it was a period piece. I found it a really compelling combinations of genres — a detective story, this investigative journey, but it was embedded in a love story.
As a film that explores faith, I felt this was a really cool point of view. From a nonbeliever looking to discredit Christianity and yet even though his goal was to discredit it in order to save his wife, the movie itself, I felt and really wanted, had a very even-handed approach — let’s look at the facts, he’s a journalist who is all about finding truth through facts. So if you can lay the facts before you and scrutinize the historical documentation, the eyewitness testimonies, the things that are known to be true, the best we can and weigh that. It’s a movie that doesn’t feel like it has an agenda so much as it is a pursuit of real truth. I appreciate that a lot. I thought it was an interesting and unexpected view to take.
The making of the screenplay
Gunn will be the first to tell you — faith is a “challenging” genre for him.
“As a storyteller, I always want story to come before message. And faith films generally put message before the story,” he said.
But “The Case For Christ” is different, Gunn contended, as both the message and the story merged together. And part of what made the story and message merge together so well was due to the work of the film’s screenwriter, Brian Bird.
Bird, who was tasked with adapting the book into a film, recognized a challenge right away: Lee Strobel interviewed several leading theological scholars for his book — and those interviews are well documented in it.
“The most challenging thing for me was how to be authentic to the apologetics in ‘The Case For Christ’ and stay true to what literally those interviews represented in the book and translate that for the screen,” Bird told TheBlaze.
He added that it “was a long process” as he had to transform boring and dry interviews into fascinating and entertaining scenes for the big screen. So he got creative — or as he called it, he “shaped” some of the interviews into more escalating scenes.
“In screenwriting, you have to escalate scenes,” Bird said. “For me, it was all about shaping them and vetting them [with the real characters in the book] and getting their blessings on what I had done. They certainly weren’t speaking in dramatic fashion when they were doing their interview because it’s an interview.”
Aside from shaping the drier parts of the book, Bird said he also had to ensure that he wasn’t making a “propaganda film.”
Other people, God bless them, they make stories that are successful and that’s awesome, but I don’t want to pound people over the head with the gospel. I want to stir cravings that lead to great conversations between people — water cooler conversations — because the power of faith, the power of Christ, to me, is what happens between people around the water cooler or sitting together and sharing real flesh and blood friendship and bonding over a topic like that.
— Lee Strobel (@LeeStrobel) October 20, 2016
Gunn, in agreeing with Bird, added that in order to avoid making a film that viewers might dismiss as “sappy or cheesy,” the writing of the story needs to be truthful and emotionally compelling along with performances that are “honest and raw” — a feat accomplished by Vogel and Erika Christensen, who plays Leslie.
The making of a conversation
Vogel’s desire for the movie is simple: he wants it to be a conversation starter.
“I think we all have a lot more to talk about than we think we do, and that’s my hope for this film,” Vogel told TheBlaze. “I don’t want it to just be preaching to the choir. I want people to be able to watch it and say, ‘you know what, I may not agree with it, great, but it was a fair shake’ because it was one man’s story and that you can’t take away.”
And that man’s story, Lee Strobel, a journalist-turned-pastor, is set to hit theaters nationwide in the spring.